Aug 26, 2016

Pennsylvania's Lake Erie lighthouses

The Presque Isle Lighthouse is one of three lighthouses along Lake Erie in Pennsylvania.
Maritime history has been a longtime interest of mine. As I mentioned in the Presque Isle State Park post, I've been going to the beach every year since I was 6 months old. Whether or not my parents intended it, they helped establish my appreciation of everything nautical.

A significant part of maritime history, at least for me, was the construction of lighthouses along United States coastlines. We take for granted today the service these towers provided for hundreds of years, but they assisted mariners during the best and worst weather and sea conditions, resulting in thousands of lives spared.

GPS, radar and other technological advancements have made boating and shipping safer than ever, but before this technology, boaters depended on maps, celestial coordinates and personal knowledge for navigation. During a storm, however, if the sky above you and the water below you were pitch black, these conditions were going to hinder your ability to rely only on stars and a sense of direction.

Lighthouses became a vital tool during such instances. A flash of light was enough to give mariners an idea of where land was located, in which case they could, no pun intended, "head toward the light" for safety.

Lighthouses also served an important role in nautical geography. Before large coastal towns like Ocean City or Cape May popped up, coastlines looked almost identical, whether you were off the coast of North Carolina or Delaware. When lighthouses were constructed along the coast, they were designed so that they stood out from neighboring towers. Some of the differences included shapes, heights and paint. For example, this is notable in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where the Currituck Lighthouse was built with reddish-brown bricks; the Bodie Island Lighthouse, which is about as tall as Currituck, was painted with black and white horizontal stripes; and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest tower with its iconic candy cane-style black and white stripes.

The Currituck Lighthouse
The Bodie Island Lighthouse
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Lighthouses and U.S. maritime history aren't restricted to just the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines. The Great Lakes also have stories and folklore about ships, fish, "lake monsters" and war.

Because of their size, Erie, Huron, Superior, Ontario and Michigan resemble seas rather than lakes. Shipping and fishing were such integral industries on the Great Lakes that, over the years, the federal government authorized funding for several lighthouses to protect the mariners traversing those waters. Many of these towers have come and gone, but there are still about 130 remaining on the Great Lakes, according to Michigan's tourism website.

Three of these lighthouses still exist in Pennsylvania, and they're so close in proximity that tourists can visit all of them in about an hour.

While Pennsylvania may not have a lot of lighthouses, it does hold the distinction of having one of the first American lighthouses on the Great Lakes.

The Erie Land Lighthouse first shone in 1818, the same year as the Buffalo Main Lighthouse in New York, according to the website

The Erie Land Lighthouse was originally known as the "Presque Isle Lighthouse" until another lighthouse was built on Presque Isle, resulting in the name change.
Historians battle over which lighthouse was considered "first" since the Erie and Buffalo lights were both funded by Congress at the same time in March 1817, according to They were also constructed and activated around the same time, but there are no definite records -- at least online -- of which lighthouse is the oldest. It's like identical twins who argue who is older because one came out of the womb three minutes earlier. Regardless, both towers take credit for being the "first" two American lighthouses on the Great Lakes.

You notice I keep saying first "American" lighthouse? That's because the British beat us to the punch.

In 1759, British forces captured Fort Niagara near present-day Youngstown, New York, during the French and Indian War, according to Nearly two decades after seizing the fort, the British decided to erect a tower with a whale oil lamp on the roof in 1781, making this the first navigational lighthouse on the Great Lakes, the website says.

Coming back to Pennsylvania, the first Erie Land Lighthouse tower stood at only 20 feet tall with a 9-foot-tall lantern, but because it sat on top of a bluff, its focal point was 93 feet, according to Unfortunately, a study conducted in 1851 found that the lighthouse was settling into the earth below it. As an attempted fix, metal bands were placed around the tower to stabilize it, but that proved to be insufficient.

The first Erie Land Lighthouse was torn down. In 1858, a 56-foot-high brick tower was constructed in its place, according to

You know how you're told all your life to learn from your mistakes? The people who built the second lighthouse must have ignored that lesson. The new tower experienced the same settling issue that the first one did. In addition, it also had cracks in it due to frost. This happened fewer than 10 years after its construction. These issues forced the second lighthouse to be demolished in 1866.

But hey, third time's a charm, right? Just to make sure, surveyors conducted a study of the earth where the first two lighthouses stood. Their report found that a layer of quicksand under the foundations was attempting to swallow the towers. With this knowledge, the builders moved the site of the third lighthouse further back from the edge of the bluff. They also made the foundation twice the size of the previous one so it could better distribute the tower's weight, according to The third (and final) 49-foot-tall sandstone lighthouse went into operation in 1867.

This is the tower that still stands in a small neighborhood in the City of Erie today, though the current Erie Land Lighthouse has spent most of its time extinguished. The first time the current tower went dark was shortly after the construction of the Presque Isle Lighthouse on the peninsula in 1873. The Lighthouse Board decided that the Presque Isle Lighthouse made the Erie Land Lighthouse obsolete, and on March 1, 1881, the Erie Land tower and its dwelling were sold at auction for $1,800, according to Parts of the Erie Land Lighthouse were sent to a storage facility in Buffalo, New York.

The decision to shutter the lighthouse drew criticism from many locals and mariners, who still considered the tower an essential tool for navigation on the lake. Congress heard the people's complaints and agreed to allocate $7,000 on July 7, 1884, to reopen the Erie Land Lighthouse, according to

It took some work to get the tower back into working condition, however. Parts of it remained in storage in Buffalo, while other pieces were looted or broken. A "custodian" was hired to watch the tower during its renovations because, as the website puts its, the area was "endangered by tramps."

It took some time, but the Erie Land Lighthouse shone once again about a year later. The lighthouse would remain in operation for a few years after this, but on Dec. 26, 1899, its light cast out over the lake for the last time for nearly a century. The area surrounding the Erie Land Lighthouse became a park, which remains today.

Exactly 100 years after it went dark, the lighthouse was lit for a ceremony to display recent renovations to the tower on Dec. 26, 1999, according to Since then, some additional renovation work has been done, and occasional tours are provided to people who want to climb the tower. Even though Cassidy and I went to visit the Erie Land Lighthouse during our first trip to Lake Erie, we didn't get the chance to go inside the tower. It's on my bucket list, however, if tours are still available the next time I visit.

I alluded to another one of Pennsylvania's lighthouses before when I mentioned how the third Erie Land Lighthouse became obsolete. You may have seen it already, because every time you open my blog, a picture of it serves as the background. It was also featured in the first picture of this post.

The next lighthouse of interest is the Presque Isle Lighthouse, a 68-foot tower situated on the sandy peninsula outside the City of Erie.

The Presque Isle Lighthouse is located near Goddard Beach in Presque Isle State Park.
Construction of the lighthouse began in September 1872 at a cost of about $15,000, according to

Like the Erie Land Lighthouse with its settling issues, the Presque Isle Light experienced some misfortune of its own.

During construction, workers anchored a scow loaded with about 6,000 bricks for the tower just offshore from the building site, according to Not long after, a storm swept through the area, which broke the scow free from its anchor. The scow then tipped, sending the bricks into the water. To this day, people claim to be finding those bricks on the sandy beaches of Presque Isle State Park, according to

In another incident during construction, one person died after a group of workers was crossing Misery Bay during a storm, according to the website. If there's a lesson to be learned from both of these accidents, it's not to be on a boat during a storm on Lake Erie.

Despite these two mishaps, construction of the Presque Isle Lighthouse went at a decent pace, and the tower lit for the first time in July 1873, according to The original tower was shorter than the one pictured above. In 1873, it was only 40 feet tall, but another 17 feet were added in 1896 to help it project light further over the lake, according to On a side note: I know I said the tower is 68 feet tall earlier in the post, which means my math would be off by 11 feet. The 68-foot measurement is from the lighthouse's official website. If my logic is correct, I believe the tower itself might be 57 feet tall, with the lantern room being another 11 feet. I could be wrong, so if that's the case, please feel free to correct me.

Another difference in the lighthouse's modern appearance is the color. The Presque Isle Lighthouse was built with unpainted brick, so it looked reddish-brown. In 1899, the tower was painted white to make it stand out during the day, according to The lighthouse is surrounded by a grove of trees, which would have made it harder to see from the water with its original color scheme. Even on the beach, the trees keep the lighthouse out of sight until you're within about a hundred yards of it. The white paint certainly added to the tower's visibility.

This is what the Presque Isle Lighthouse looks like from the water. Some of the surrounding trees almost dwarf the tower, though the white paint helps the lighthouse stick out.
The workers for the Presque Isle Lighthouse built it to last. The tower is at least five bricks thick in most parts and possibly wider in others, according to Despite being rectangular on the outside, the lighthouse's interior is cylindrical with a spiral staircase. And unlike taller lighthouses such as the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse with its 257 steps, the Presque Isle Light has only 78.

The dwelling next to the lighthouse has nine rooms and served as the living quarters for the lighthouse keeper and his family. Today, the Presque Isle Lighthouse organization maintains the tower and the house. The group also offers tours of the lighthouse Thursdays through Mondays between Memorial Day and Labor Day. If you want more information about tour times and costs, you can visit the organization's page here:

Touring the lighthouse is another item on my Lake Erie bucket list. The first time Cassidy and I went, the lighthouse wasn't open to the public yet. The second time we visited Presque Isle, we didn't know the lighthouse switched ownership. I can assure you that I will climb that lighthouse the next time I visit.

There's one more lighthouse to discuss, but I will be brief with describing it because I have pictures of it that are much better than anything I can write. The third and smallest of Pennsylvania's Lake Erie lighthouses is the Presque Isle North Pierhead Light.

The Presque Isle North Pierhead Lighthouse is not far from the Presque Isle Lighthouse.
The North Pierhead Light's history is a bit murky because there were other lights and towers used around the area it stands today; however, indicates the current tower went into commission about 1857. The Presque Isle Lighthouse's official website says the original North Pierhead Lighthouse was built in 1830. It also says the current lighthouse was built in 1867, which contradicts the 1857 date on

The Presque Isle Lighthouse website lists the North Pierhead Light's height at 34 feet, but has 26.5 feet. Do you sense my frustration? Both websites confirm that the tower was moved at least three times in 1882, 1891 and 1940, which could explain why the lighthouse was built so small -- it was mobile in case it needed to be relocated.

If you look at old photos of the lighthouse, you'll notice it resembled a fire tower. The black and white steel plates seen today were added in 1940.

The North Pierhead Lighthouse sits at the end of North Pier, which serves as a popular fishing spot. The lighthouse also marks the entrance to Presque Isle and Misery bays.

The North Pierhead Lighthouse doesn't look like much because of its size -- it's the smallest lighthouse I've seen in person, but the nice aspect about it is its accessibility. The North Pierhead Lighthouse isn't open for climbing, but anyone can walk up to it and hang around.

During my trip to Presque Isle State Park in 2015, I took a Sunday morning to fish at the end of North Pier next to the lighthouse. Other than one other person who came to shoot photos for a project, I sat by myself with a fishing pole and my camera. Since I'm a crappy fisherman and I wasn't catching squat, I decided to take photos instead. Because of the North Pierhead Light's location, it provides some of the most scenic and enticing sunrise views in Pennsylvania. Here's evidence of that:


For once, I'm glad no fish were biting.

That's the tour of Pennsylvania's Lake Erie lighthouses. I encourage anyone who loves lighthouses or nautical history to take a trip to Lake Erie and Presque Isle State Park at some point. If you do a lighthouse tour, it won't take long. All three lighthouses are within driving distance of one another. The Presque Isle and North Pierhead lighthouses are located on Presque Isle and are accessible by vehicle, with the exception of some walking. The Erie Land Lighthouse is located in a children's park in the City of Erie. The map below shows all three locations:

You should also consider reading my post about Presque Isle State Park and Lake Erie if you want to learn more about what you can do while in Erie. In addition to lighthouses, the Lake Erie region also has sand beaches, wineries, shops, museums, a zoo and more. You can read more about it here:

Note: These organizations and their websites provided me with much of the information for this blog post. I thank them for making my research and life much easier: